Beanie Feldstein and Olivia Wilde are holed up in a Las Vegas hotel, having arrived in what Wilde jokingly refers to as “our spot, where we feel most at home" to present at the Billboard Music Awards that night. Speaking on the phone to Refinery29, the two share an easy, trusting camaraderie, the result of months spent together on set for Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, which hits cinemas on May 31.
The movie, which opened at SXSW to rave reviews, is an instant high school comedy classic that feels at once comfortingly familiar, and immensely creative —a love letter to every overly intense, over-achieving teenage girl. It's a portrayal that has so far been left out of on-screen representation of young women. Be prepared to see Rosie The Riveter boiler suits like protagonists Molly and Amy's everywhere this summer.
Feldstein plays Molly, a type-A high school senior who is dismayed to realise that while she and best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) were busy studying, their classmates were living it up — and still got into their dream colleges. And so begins one debaucherous night of partying, during which Molly and Amy learn important life lessons about friendship, growing up, and how not to hijack a stranger’s car.
It’s Feldstein’s first leading role, a moment that the 25-year-old actress, born Elizabeth Greer Feldstein in Los Angeles (her nickname, “Beanie,” was a parting gift from a British nanny), has steadily been building up to with small but memorable roles in films like Neighbours 2 and Lady Bird, the Broadway revival of Hello Dolly!, and Taika Waititi’s FX vampire comedy series What We Do in The Shadows.
Feldstein is obviously funny. She's perfected a particular kind of delivery that cautiously skirts the line between earnestly sweet and comically intense. But more than that, she’s kind. She belongs to a new generation of Hollywood women, committed to inclusivity and body positivity, and to savvily empowering herself and others. In 2017, she wore her senior prom dress to the Screen Actors Guild Awards and took her mum, fashion stylist and costume designer Sharon Ly, as her date — a gesture that earned her the internet’s undying devotion.
She’s also written honest, open essays about difficult subjects, like her relationship to weight-loss, and her brother Jordan’s death. At a SXSW screening of Booksmart, she opened up about her sexuality and her girlfriend, Bonnie Chance-Roberts, emphasising the need for more multi-layered stories about LGBTQ+ characters. Plus, she’s got an enviable, Instagram-friendly group of friends who are also actors— many co-star alongside her in Booksmart.
Back when she was still known as “Jonah Hill’s younger sister,” (the Academy Award nominee is nine years her senior) Feldstein made her film debut in 2016’s Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising, as a freshman sorority sister outraged at the misogyny of the Greek system. She was instantly touted as the film’s breakout star, and she’s been stealing scenes ever since.
Feldstein followed up with a turn in Whitney Cummings’ The Female Brain as an assistant to a scientist trying to disprove stereotypes about women, a beloved part in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (which gave birth to her much-quoted line about “the titular role”), and made her Broadway debut as Minnie Fay in Hello Dolly! alongside Bette Midler in 2017. (Those major career achievements were tempered with tragedy: In December 2017, her oldest brother Jordan died suddenly of a blood clot at the age of 40.) And then came Booksmart, directed by Wilde and written by Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins.
Although a decade apart in age, Feldstein and Wilde, 35, share common ground. The two made their Broadway debut around the same time. (Feldstein in Hello Dolly!, and Wilde in an adaptation of 1984 so brutal that it caused Jennifer Lawrence to throw up.)
They also grew up around fame: Beanie around Hill (he took his middle name as his stage name), who starred in 2007’s Superbad when she was still in middle school, and Olivia around the Washington D.C. cultural and political circles fostered by her parents, famed 60 Minutes producer Leslie Cockburn and British journalist Andrew Cockburn. (Writer Christopher Hitchens was her babysitter.)
What’s more, the two attended academically-minded schools — Harvard-Westlake (where she met BFF Ben Platt, and future Booksmart co-star Billie Lourd) and Wesleyan for Feldstein; Georgetown Day and Phillips Academy for Wilde, who was accepted to Bard College but deferred to pursue acting — and share a passion for making others laugh.
Next up, Feldstein will be trading in her perfect diction for a Wolverhampton accent as the lead in How To Build A Girl, adapted by Caitlin Moran from her best-selling book of the same name. It’s an edgier role, and a logical next step for a performer primed to take her place in the spotlight.
But first, she and Wilde have a lot to discuss. What follows is their conversation before the Billboard Music Awards, which covered everything from meeting at Anna Wintour’s house (casual) to how to act opposite your real-life best friend. Spoiler alert: It’s gutting.
Olivia Wilde: “I guess we should start with where we originally met, because I can remember every detail of it, at Cafe Un Deux Trois.”
Beanie Feldstein: “Well, technically that wasn’t the first.”
O.W.: “Oh fuck, that’s right!”
B.F.: “It was at Anna Wintour’s house!”
O.W.: “You were honestly the reason I went to that event. I was like, ‘Who’s going to be there? Oh my god, all the Broadway people? Oh, everyone in the big shows?!’ And if you remember, we each had a little cake with our show Playbill.”
“I was wearing 17-inch heels, because I remember coming over and realising that you very much came up to my navel. I was like, ‘I just want to hold you!’’ Then we got to actually hang out at Cafe Un Deux Trois, at the corner table. You ordered hot water with lemon and honey, and I got six shots of espresso.
“I think doing 1984 was what made me realise I really wanted to make a comedy, and I really wanted to make something life affirming. I wanted to dive headfirst into Booksmart, and make it the most colourful, human story. “
B.F.: “Every comedy is rooted in a real truth, and typically a painful one of sorts. In Hello Dolly!, it’s about a widow trying to move on to the next stage of her life. In Lady Bird there are so many heart-wrenching moments. And in Booksmart, the friendship between Molly and Amy is not always the easiest. And when they realise that, it’s so painful!”
O.W.: “Comedy is like a slingshot. It only works if the tension is pulled back. But it’s so true that the stories that you’ve chosen to tell are all about someone very human, like choosing the path of light and love.”
B.F.: “I don’t know if I choose it, but I genuinely feel that it chose me. I actually learned this from Lady Bird. My character is a depressed person, and she has that beautiful line: ‘Some people aren’t built happy.’ That was the greatest difference between the two of us—I’m not that way at all. I think I’m actually built happy, and I’ve had a lot of not happy things happen to me.”
O.W.: “It’s such a great example that you’re giving people by saying, I choose to laugh and love and live life. It’s the same with Bette [Midler]!”
B.F.: “The definition of fearless. She was in her 70s, and she never sat down during our performances on Hello Dolly! I would be panting, grasping for my water, and she would never take breaks.”
O.W.: “That’s you though! When we were working on Booksmart, the cast was working in different capacities, so some people had more to do than others, but you had the most to do. And you never seemed exhausted by it. It's a great example to everyone else. Like, If Beanie’s not tired, nobody’s tired. Kaitlyn and you both did that together.”
B.F.: “It was definitely a partnership. Kaitlyn and I had been supporting players in other incredible stories, and had been led by example in that too. So when we knew that we would be leading this cast, we didn’t take it lightly. I had just worked with Saoirse [Ronan] and then Bette! I drew from both of their brilliant examples, especially from Saoirse, how to lead as a young person.”
O.W.: “One of the reasons I’m so excited to see How To Build A Girl is because I know it’s going to be a completely different Beanie. It’s remarkable in Booksmart how you departed from yourself. Yes, you have the same intelligence and ambition as Molly…”
B.F.: “Yeah, I don’t feel like a Molly.”
O.W.: “You’re not Molly. The whole time, I was like the person who is departing the most here is Beanie. You had to take a big risk by putting on the shield that Molly wears.”
B.F.: “What I loved about Molly was that you got to see her that way, but then see her with Amy, silly, and gross, and that’s how every smart girl that I know is. Molly's judging others so that they won’t judge her first. She is gooey and mushy underneath, she’s just putting up her armour."
O.W.: “A great example of that is your scene in the bathroom. [Editor’s note: Early on in “Booksmart,” Molly overhears classmates talking behind her back in the school's bathroom. When she confronts them, she finds out that contrary to her assumption, they all got into the colleges of their choice, despite having partied in high school.] I love the way you played it. The defiant way that you flush that toilet and walk out the door, and drop the mic on them with that amazing little monologue. I remember sitting at the monitor and thinking, I fucking love this girl. She’s not playing this as weepy, broken.”
B.F.: “Again, talking about covering up something — I was playing opposite Molly Gordon, who’s my best friend in the world. Every look she gave me, I had never seen on her face towards me before. The air was buzzing because I felt cut by these looks!”
O.W.: “Someone we think of as our adversary or someone who has an energy that makes us feel strongly — the difference between loving them and hating them is so small.”
B.F.: “Sometimes it’s really hard to love someone who’s a lot like you. My youngest nephew Charlie and [my brother] Jonah [Hill] would get into intense fights, because it’s literally like looking in the mirror. They would just yell at each other, [like] one person cut in half, except one is 4 and the other 34. And that explains why [Molly Gordon’s character] Triple A and Molly are adversaries in the film. There is this sort of energy between them that could go either way.“
O.W.: “[Triple A] has one of my favourite lines in the movie, which is: ‘I knew the guys would say this shit, but I didn’t think the girls would.’ If there’s one thing women could take away from the movie, it’s [that we should] stop participating in this cycle of slut-shaming and all types of shaming. We don’t even realise sometimes that we are part of this cycle of patriarchal abuse. And it starts in adolescence.”
O.W.: “It becomes Lord of the Flies—everybody find their team!—and it’s really intense in a way Booksmart was intended to acknowledge. The high stakes. A lot of people have been leaving Booksmart and saying ‘I need to call that person.’ Molly and Amy do have a pretty healthy separation. You know you’re going to have to let her go."
O.W.: You started your career working with a lot of women, and it’s really interesting how that has shaped you.”
B.F.: “The first film that I did was Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising, and it was a feminist anthem, low-key. It dealt with women wanting to party. Then I did the Whitney Cummings movie, [The Female Brain,] which was so fun. And then Lady Bird, Hello Dolly!, and Booksmart.”
O.W.: “And then How to Build a Girl. You are on a roll of putting yourself in professional situations where you respect the people you work with — a lot of strong female energy.”
B.F.: “Why would you want to be part of a story that you wouldn’t want to watch?”
O.W.: “It’s interesting because going back to the beginning of my career, I did feel objectified, and I didn’t respect everyone I worked with. I did things I didn’t want to see — not a ton, but it took me longer than you to find the kind of confidence it takes to curate the career you really want.”
B.F.: “Jonah says the same thing. I don’t know if it’s college, but I think maybe, because I was a little bit older, I had maybe a few more years — and those are pretty formative years. I had to take myself completely out of the running, and study sociology, and come back, and be like, Oh, I know what I want.”
O.W.: “When a lot of people go wrong in Hollywood, I think it’s because they’re looking for fulfilment from the attention. It took me 10 years before I really understood what kind of stories I wanted to tell and who I really was within this business. Then another 10 years to end up where I am now.”
B.F.: “I’m so excited for people to see you tell such a ridiculously special story. You watch Booksmart, and you see that Olivia Wilde is a Fucking. Director.”
O.W.: “It’s amazing that we come away from it creating the friendships that the movie is celebrating.”
B.F.: “It’s interesting because How To Build a Girl is a story about a girl who doesn’t have friends. If she’d had friends she wouldn’t have done all of this, and she needed to do all of this to tell her story. It’s a portrait of a 15-year-old without a best friend, and it was heartbreaking to be in.”
With that, Feldstein and Wilde had to go get ready for the Billboard Music Awards. They reunited that evening on the red carpet. Clad in a sunny yellow Shrimps dress, Feldstein captured the moment on Instagram with a characteristically enthusiastic caption: “just a completely normal night!!!! with our community!!! we so belong!!!!!” It’s a joke rooted in truth. And as she says, that’s the best kind.